“GO BACK TO THE KITCHEN AND MAKE ME A SANDWICH!11!11!” —an old Internet proverb
To be a woman who dares overstep her place in the physical or the digital worlds is to be branded a target by men, men who wish to return to halcyon days: of women only seen (except when they shouldn’t be) but not heard, of apron-donning, of apple-cheeked ma’ams bowing to their every whim. For these men, food — or rather, feeding — is the second most important women’s work (with the first being to create/carry/raise the man’s children), and the domestic kitchen is the only place a woman should be when she isn’t tidying up the homestead or on her knees.
Note “domestic,” since every woman-in-the-kitchen joke should include an asterisk that of course, you wouldn’t mean the professional kitchen, as those are still dominated by men. A 2014 study found that 95% of executive chefs (those running the kitchen) are men, while a 2005 study cited in Deborah A. Harris and Patti Giuffre’s book Taking the Heat: Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen puts the percentage of men working as sous chefs (second-in-commands in the kitchen) at 82% and as line cooks (the ones you see sweating and running behind burners) at 66%.
Where do women dominate? Of course, at pastries: Flowery, delicate, intricate pastries that would collapse under strong, calloused man hands. But dessert is only the powdered cherry on top of beautiful man food (aka the stuff you pay for) rather than home food (aka the stuff your mom makes you because she has to — because she’s a woman, because she belongs in the kitchen, etc. etc. etc.)
The formal food industry is in awe of men who create, cook, and critique each other’s amazing, not-at-all-inane skill sets. (There are few household female food icons, and most of them also operate in entertainment media.) Just look at how men used to write about cooking for men, by men, in Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite’s dissection of the 1949 Esquire Handbook (now just Esquire) for The Awl:
A bride takes up cooking because she must, whether she’s an eat-to-live gal or just medium-bored with the whole idea. But a man takes to the stove because he is interested in cooking, therefore he has long been interested in eating and therefore he starts six lengths in front of the average female … After suffering steam-table tastelessness or misplaced housewifely economy, any palate will perk up at the taste of fresh fish, properly prepared—by a man. (Women don’t seem to understand fish—and, we suppose, vice versa.)
As Aggarwal-Schifellite puts it, “The Handbook shows over and over again that women have no choice but to cook bland food and throw boring parties, but a man can choose to do those things better than women, which allows him some semblance of control over his life. It also reinforced the Esquire man’s superiority over women, precisely because he could choose to take over her domain, and with the right training, he could do it in a way that would garner respect from both women and men in his life.” Or, as author Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket wrote in a piece for More,“it’s immediately clear that the world demands more of girls … A good girlfriend should do the laundry and maybe plan a dinner party when her guy’s parents come to town. A good boyfriend just has to not make passes at her friends. A good husband should have a job and not get violent; a good wife runs the whole damn show.” A good woman thanklessly does the day-to-day food labor; a good man does it infrequently and drowns in delighted praise.
(Aside: what makes an “eat-to-live” gal different from a regular gal? Are there eat-to-die gals? Eat-to-only-enjoy-but-not-live gals? Why has the notion of woman as food consumer remained so hard to grasp, especially in an age where it’s mostly women writing odes to Eat 24 and Seamless online and Instagramming every cupcake they come across? Why do all domestic kitchen magazine spreads look like set pieces for charity dinner film scenes? Why haven’t there been more high profile leaps by women between the food blog world and restaurant kitchens? Women are cooking, and eating, more visibly than before…and yet.)
The backbone of the food industry relies on female labor, particularly in the realm of big agriculture. The image of the farmer will still conjure a solitary white male figure, gazing across fields of grain (see: Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar), even as machinery and mass human labor drive the reality of the business. The love affair between men and big machines holds strong, but while women may not always be pictured behind the wheels of tractors and combines, they’re certainly picking fruit, planting and harvesting rice and millet and cocoa, and working in food processing factories.
When it comes to the final product, as with most things, the domestic, “amateur” reflection of the elevated “prestige” profession is more populated by women, and carries with it connotations of frivolity, excess, and bare competence, despite the fact that social food sharing is open to and done by everyone. The culinary profession is a perfect example of University of Texas Austin professor CL Williams’s “glass escalator,” which suggests that men are often propelled to the top of prestigious professions faster than women, leading to increased visibility for men in a shorter time frame.
That might sound preposterous — in a world of Food Network and reality cooking TV, we can all list a slew of female chef personalities, but everyone from Julia to Giada to Ina to Padma wouldn’t exist without a screen on which a viewer can tune in. Meanwhile, a cursory Google search for “the best chefs in the world” runs through 18 male chefs before they even get to Julia freakin’ Child, while this 2010 Epicurious roundup names 15 men, almost all of them white, as modern cooking’s most iconic chefs. Though there’s surely an issue with racial diversity within the visible capital-F Food world, at least I can think of Marcus Samuelsson, Roy Choi, Aarón Sánchez, David Chang and their various modern commercial culinary endeavors. As for women of color, there’s Gina Neely, whose show ended in 2012, Aarti Sequeira, Maneet Chauhan, Kristen Kish, and Padma Lakshmi, who’s almost definitely on screen for more than her taste profile. And since 2000, only three female chefs have won the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef category. (In that same time, five male chefs have won the Outstanding Pastry Chef category.)
So, why are so many of the “best chefs” men? It’s certainly not because women can’t cook—after all, that’s why they’re in the kitchen—but rather because the professional kitchen environment is still comparable to that of a frat house or any sort of brotherhood-inspired society or field (see also: tech, sports fandom, physically intensive and/or blue collar jobs). As a 2011 post on The Feminist Kitchen posits:
There is a fine line for what is considered acceptable behavior for women in this “macho” environment. Women described themselves as “invaders” of men chef’s turf, and their male supervisors often had preconceived ideas that women were not physically and emotionally strong enough to work in kitchens and would give them fewer high-status jobs…
But the women had to be careful. If they acted too masculine, such as brusquely giving orders like men chefs, this could get them labeled “bitchy” and undermine their authority. Other women took a more feminine approach and a caring attitude about staff. They also “got their hands dirty” doing some of the less desirable kitchen jobs to demonstrate their commitment to teamwork. This made their male coworkers view them as mothers or big sisters in the kitchen — two feminine authority figures —but it was a fine line between encouraging teamwork and being a pushover.
In addition to the age-old “how do you play with the boys” dilemma, there’s also the perceived and real time commitment, itself based off of the assumption that female chefs are concurrently also dealing with the same-old issues of fighting the biological clock and then actively raising children, an assumption not also placed on male chefs. (The idea of a chef as a sexy playboy bachelor [thanks, Anthony Bourdain] doesn’t have a female counterpart.) Because while many women take their place in the professional food world’s lower ranks, they’re forced, whether they themselves worry about the issue or not, to confront their womanhood and its perceived effect on their ability to work.
Case in point: Three-Michelin-starred French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten said, in a Bloomberg inquiry into the dearth of high-ranking chefs in kitchens, “Many times when ladies become sous-chefs, as soon as they hit 27, 28, 30, they want to have a family. It changes everything. The ticking clock makes a difference. Women, they need a life more than men somehow, non?” In the same article, he describes the only female chef de cuisine in his restaurant emporium as such: “She’s an excellent chef. Very committed. Very pretty girl. She should be a model, not a cook.”
Of course, one might expect a middle-aged French dude to give that answer. How do the laypeople working in professional kitchens think? One Quora post by a male chef suggests that the issue is rather the perception of the celebrity chef, which places acceptable figureheads in place rather than honor the laborers, of all sexes and genders, who make those kitchens tick. In the same post, though, he suggests that women “aren’t crazy enough” to go deep into the kitchen world, and that the “bad boy” posturing that makes male chefs appealing — and encourages men to get into the business — simply isn’t applicable for women.
As for female chefs, there are generally two lines of thought, which are often adopted by women in other male-dominated industries: What gender bias? versus This is real and we need to talk about it. (See: New York Magazine in 2007 and Eater in 2013.) Many female chefs have the defensive undertone typical of people who gained their current power from white men, which is about right for an industry in which cases like Barbara Lynch’s mentorship of eventual Top Chef winner Kish are so unique as to warrant their own New York Times Magazine profile.
Indeed, woman-to-woman mentorship within the field might be the only real way to change the industry. Scholarships certainly help with the cost, but aren’t necessarily the most effective way to get women to stay. Some female chef mentorship program exist within the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs network and SheChef; programs by the French Culinary Institute and the James Beard Foundation suffer from having disappeared since 2002 and having mostly male mentors, respectively.
Looking away from the industry itself, the cultural associations around the word “chef” still very much exist. Gendered occupations in themselves, though now rightfully under siege, still draw invisible lines in the sand: think of your firefighter, your ballet teacher, your secretary, your engineer. But for something like food, universal in its necessity and importance, those assumptions should be banished by the sheer ubiquity and impartiality of its demand. Sure, one can trace some sort of abstract thought lineage to the popular image of our species’ hunter-gatherer days, wherein the physically stronger males brought home the meat that bulked our meager prehistoric forms, while females foraged greens, roots, fruits, and fungi to supplement for lean stretches. But often glossed over is that women learned to tan hides and boil down fats; they helped smoke and save meat alongside men; and in cultures around the world, men and women hunted and cooked together until industrialization forced that model of food preparation into exceptional obsolescence.
The idea of the woman waiting for her man’s fresh catch in order to prepare it for the family just so is, on its own, a defunct notion. But the notion that a woman buys, prepares, and cooks the household food, or at the very least worries about it, isn’t so foreign in many households. Just think of your favorite home-cooked meal — how many of you thought exclusively of your father chopping up produce and checking on pots, your grandfather’s warm stews wafting through the rooms of your home? Who did you call on when you came back from school with a rumble in your belly? Whose ire did you rouse when you snacked before dinner; whose feelings did you hurt when you pushed away your meal?
A memory, composed of many: Setting the table under my mother’s watchful eye as she prepped meals, many times multiple dishes for multiple days at once, while my father puttered around the house until the very last minute. On those occasions when my mother was too tired to cook, out of town, or celebrating a very special occasion, we’d head to a Burger King, a local restaurant, or a McCormick & Schmick’s-level mall eatery — all treats that I sought away from the boring and “ethnic” stuff we got for dinner every day. I repeat: my mother cooked me homemade meals from family recipes for most of my life, and I oftentimes wanted nothing more than to eat anything else, save a few choice labor-intensive dishes.
What I didn’t know! — and now, I long for stir-fried spongy bean curd, soupy tomatoes with eggs and sesame oil, pork bone stock soups with cellophane noodles and cabbage, steamed sea bass with special Asian market soy sauce. Yes, the tastes and smells alone have me pining, but these memories are also visual and auditory and tactile: kitchen aprons hanging from a hook on the fridge; chopping sounds amidst sizzling pans and the buzz of the nightly news; the cooking burns and scars on my mother’s otherwise unmarred hands and arms.
I know I was lucky to have a mother who cared equally about her child’s nutrition and taste buds, and who was really, really good at cooking. For many people with less harmonious, Norman Rockwell-esque memories, family meals were the thing that Mom did or at least tried to do. I don’t particularly envy those who grew up with dry meat loaves, “creamed” vegetables, and lettuce-heavy salads — but whatever else, those mothers, almost always mothers, fought against the odds, including perhaps the knowledge that whatever they whipped up in their kitchens would never dazzle quite as brightly or tempt quite as readily as food that had to be prepared by others, bought, and then hand-delivered. Money equals value, but money also imparts value. You do not grow up knowing the exact price or the time units that went into your meals, only the things that pass your lips.